The Essay Series # 2: The Vignette Essay
What is a vignette essay and how do you write one? When you want to say the most with the fewest words of all.
The is Part 2 of The Essay Series.
Essays are perhaps the most naturally discursive of literary genres. They can start out in one place and end up in another. But if essays are about exploration, about investigation, arrival, and the formulation of thought, why then would we want to make them shorter? There’s short, as in the kind of thing you can read in under ten minutes, and then there is vignette short.
The vignette resists editorializing, explanation, explicit universalization, justification, and apology. It makes no excuses, and leaves no forwarding address. The vignette exists because it is enough. It offers no credentials, flashes no badge. If the full-length book is a marriage, the vignette is a one night stand.
What is accomplished, not just with this sort of brevity, but with this narrative choice? How can something so economical exist inside such a meandering genre? This week in the Essay Series I’m going to be talking about the vignette essay—what it is, who writes it, why to write it, where to publish it, and what it’s good for.
When I think about essays and their various forms, I am often reminded of Brian Dillon’s brilliant description in his book Essayism of Virginia Woolf’s Thunder at Wembley:
“Woolf's prose mimics the action of the storm, exploding delicately into flurries of image, sound and metaphor. As so often in her writing, you have a sense of the world becoming particulate, everything airborne and efflorescent or friable, turning to dust, powder, shingle, sand. This writing seems to release spores.”
Dust, powder, sand, spores. Words that spawn, shatter, crumble. We are often presented with an image of the essay as a vehicle for atomization—the atomization of vision, experience, emotion, and thought. We push the mess of existence in on one end, and out it comes on the other, transformed. The sloshing perfume of life is dispensed as a fine mist; the opaque solidity of the expected world is revealed to be, at its core, a lie, and for some reason this pleases us.
Since the 19th century, various forms of essays have emerged that lean into this scattered quality, this dispersal, this atomization. It is a modernist tendency. This can manifest in a number of ways, and one of those is with the vignette.
You may be surprised by the number of famous authors who have worked with and published nonfiction vignettes, either as standalone magazine pieces or in books. Writers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid, Kathleen Stewart, and Annie Dillard have all experimented with the form. Younger writers like J. Robert Lennon and Sherman Alexie have also written very short essays or vignettes.
Typically, a vignette essay opens on a scene, an image, a simple story, and then it closes again, without going anywhere else. Their short length is part of what makes them a vignette, but it’s not the whole story. They can be fewer than a hundred words, or more than five hundred, perhaps longer in some instances. The length matters less than how they function energetically. After reading this essay, you can go take a look at the essays on Brevity and you will see that some of them are vignettes, and some are not.
Vignettes are often about a single moment, or a string of moments. They bring the lights up on an object, a tableau, or a situation, and then dim them again. I’ve often seen people claim that vignettes have no narrative and no plot, but that isn’t strictly true. You’d be surprised by how much can happen in a vignette, but if it does happen, it tends to happen fast.
Take this example of a vignette by Ernest Hemingway:
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